Owner looks to better team even after first Sprint Cup Series trophy
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The Sprint Cup Series trophy, that prize Roger Penske sought for so long, is the newest addition to the sprawling Penske Racing shop. Murals of past greats like Mark Donohue, Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace gaze down on NASCAR’s ultimate reward, claimed at last for the organization in 2012 by Brad Keselowski.
But that sterling silver cup is far from the only new element introduced for this season at the Penske facility, where the walls and floor are as gleamingly white as the dress shirts favored by the team’s executives. There is a new face behind the wheel of the organization’s second car, a new manufacturer providing support, a few new sponsors and support personnel sprinkled into new roles. In the wake of its first premier-series title, it’s clear that Penske did not stand pat.
“There’s something to be said for continuity,” Keselowski said Wednesday night, when the Penske shop was visited by the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Continuity is good in moderation. At some point, you have to continue to improve.”
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And the changes -- though don’t let the team owner hear you call them that -- were designed for that reason, to better an organization that was the best in NASCAR last year. After three drivers over two years of instability, Penske’s No. 22 car gets a new pilot in Joey Logano. The vehicle also has a new car chief and engineer. Greg Erwin, who made the Chase for the Sprint Cup three times with Greg Biffle at Roush Fenway, becomes crew chief on Sam Hornish’s title-contending Nationwide Series operation.
Sponsors Alliance Truck Parts and Shell/Pennzoil signed extensions, and Hertz came on board. And the organization changed manufacturers, shifting from Dodge to Ford in a transition Penske vice president Walt Czarnecki called “seamless at all levels.” As part of the move Penske closed its engine shop, reassigning about a third of those 60 employees to other roles within the race team and farming out about 15 others to the Roush-Yates company that now provides the team’s engines.
“We know what we did last year is not going to be good enough,” Keselowski said. “We have to step up to another level, we have to keep getting better. We know our competition is going to do the same. … We have that commitment to excellence to finding the next level. I know I do inside. I’m not happy being a guy who wins one championship and then goes away quietly. I want to win multiple championships. And I’m going to work as hard as I can to make that happen.”
Logano moves to a No. 22 car that’s been in constant flux with the departures of Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger over the past two seasons. At his new home, the expectations are clear. “While we know we will have wins next year with Joey,” said Heidi Massey-Bong, senior business advisor for NASCAR sponsorships at primary backer Shell/Pennzoil, “the expectation is that you will bring home Roger’s second Sprint Cup championship.”
No pressure, right? “Apparently … I’ve got a tough task already,” Logano said. “All she wants is a championship, so we’re on it.”
Penske, whose team also features 19-year-old Ryan Blaney part-time in the Nationwide Series, raved about his organization’s youth. Keselowski turns 29 next month. Logano, who has two career Sprint Cup race victories, is still only 22 even though he’s been a fixture at NASCAR’s national level for five years.
“When you think about it, when you average the two together (in) years of age, it gives us a tremendous runway going forward, because these drivers have 10 or 12 or 13 or 14 years,” Penske said. “If we can provide them with the right cars, it can be like Rick Mears. He spent his whole career with us. So I think the youth movement is here. These guys are exciting, they’re really motivated, and what I like about it is, (they’re) two young guys who need each other to be successful. So far the chemistry has been outstanding.”
So yes, to some degree it’s been an offseason of transition at Penske -- although in team parlance, these aren’t changes, but additions. “I don’t think we really have made a lot of changes,” the team owner corrected. “I think basically we’ve added some expertise, and we’ve moved people up in the organization that are making a difference.”
And at his shop, Roger Penske has the final word. The more things change -- or rather, the more things are added -- the more things remain the same. Not even a Sprint Cup trophy alters that.